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I remember back in school learning about all sorts of famous people - presidents, kings, explorers, inventors, military heroes - an endless list of amazing people who did amazing things.
But history books only contain what history book authors write. These larger-than-life idols were people, flesh and blood and subject to the same weaknesses and faults that befall even the most insignificant of us.
Speaking as a rather insignificant entity, I find this fact strangely comforting.
Now, what better American hero than the inventor of the light bulb, the motion picture, the phonograph. Thomas Alva Edison, American scientist!
When introducing electrical systems to city officials, there was intense debate over whether networks should run on DC (direct current — Edison’s preference) or AC (alternating current — George Westinghouse’s and Nikola Tesla’s design). Edison waged a vicious publicity attack against the opposing view to “demonstrate the dangerous nature of AC.” To accomplish this, he used AC to electrocute an elephant (along with several stray dogs and cats, and some cattle and horses).
Yeah, he killed a bunch of animals to try to win favor for his “more safe” DC design. Not something I remember learning in history class.
I was taught that President George Washington freed all his slaves. Well, that’s true — sort of. He did free all his slaves. In his will. Essentially, Georgie boy said, “As long as I’m alive, wash my feet and clean my house. After I’m dead, I’ll be magnanimous and give you freedom!”
What a guy! It almost makes me feel sorry that his doctors bled him to death.
Here’s one for the books. Heisenberg is well known for his contributions to nuclear physics, quantum theory, and particle physics. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932.
What most people didn’t learn is that Heisenberg was a loyal Nazi who worked on making a nuclear bomb for Hitler. Fortunately, he was a better theorist than a bomb maker.
Einstein was an interesting guy. Before marrying his first wife, Mileva, he had a daughter (Lieserl) who was given up for adoption. After marrying Mileva, he became infatuated with his cousin, Elsa, subsequently divorcing Mileva and marrying Elsa. Then came a long string of mistresses. Apparently, he was relatively keen on the theory of infidelity.
Were you taught about Roosevelt’s mistress, Lucy Mercer? It was Lucy, not Eleanor, who sat vigil at Franklin’s bed when he died.
John F. Kennedy and Judith Campbell. Warren Harding and Nan Britton. James Garfield and Mrs. Calhoun. Dwight Eisenhower and Kay Summersby. Lyndon Johnson and Alice Glass. A long history of Presidential vetos being applied to marital vows.
Beethoven wore dirty clothes and rarely bathed. Clark Gable had notoriously bad breath. Oscar Wilde walked his pet lobster on a leash around Oxford University. Prior to the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant owned slaves. Darwin liked to sample (eat) many of the animals that he discovered (did the Floreana Mockingbird really taste like chicken?).
Thomas Jefferson designed Monticello with a network of below-ground rooms connected by underground passageways to keep from view his slaves moving between the house and the plantation.
Maybe that’s why you don’t see any slaves on the back of a nickel?
Remember how Pocahontas risked her own life to spare that of Captain John Smith?
Well, that’s what happens when sociopaths are allowed to write history books. A 12-year -ld girl was taken captive. Her father, threatened with her death, was forced to succumb to Smith’s demands. She was taken to England and never returned to her family. As for Captain Smith’s “memory of her heroic act to save his life”, there was more historic accuracy in the Disney Film Pocahontas (and that had a talking tree in it).
Today, history classes are admittedly different. Students do learn more about the sordid reality of historical figures. It makes me wonder, though, what the history books of tomorrow will say about those we idolize today.
Robert Oppenheimer coined the first atomic test site as “Trinity,” recalling a reference from the poet John Donne. Curiously enough, Donne was famous for his erotic poetry. Maybe Oppie saw the humor in that?
Los Alamos Columnist